As badly as the Baltimore region needs new citizen-based leadership, progress will be tough unless residents are presented with clear-cut alternatives for their future course.

There are compelling examples in education, environmental control, public transit and solid waste management.

But let's take a single issue we know concerns people of the Baltimore region: the way the region is growing.

State legislation to restrain and guide growth is just half the story. The public has to be trusted to think through alternatives. It's time to move past "the age of the experts" who tell everyone what their choices are. There needs to be a clear public debate: What would compact development, with new styles of housing and streets, really be like? Would it be feasible?

Example: More compact towns. Growth management doesn't mean everyone has to move into a high-rise apartment tower. Maryland's Columbia and Virginia's Reston both suggest how a community can achieve a lot of density, but not seem that way. Excellent design can create inviting environments with housing densities dramatically greater than the average subdivision.

Example: Reclaiming sterile malls and parking lots. On Cape Cod, two developers took a 1906-vintage suburban mall and transformed it into a three-block town center complete with streets, sidewalks and traditional storefronts. The idea is to bulldoze the oceans of parking lots around old malls, create new streets and line them with pleasant buildings, and stack some of the lost parking in garages. Apartments, to add more human activity and physical attractiveness, can be built above the shops. The result: a newly humanized environment, where strolling can be fun.

Alternatively, to get people really close to work, developers could take parking lots around suburban office parks and convert them to attractive, compact housing with the parking buried below.

Example: Downsized residential streets. A generation ago engineers convinced planners to put in ridiculously wide streets through subdivisions -- sometimes up to 45 feet wide, when 22 to 24 feet will do nicely. Narrow the street and you slow down through traffic, create pedestrian-friendly walkways and a more pleasant visual setting for the community. Add a few planters and other deterrents to fast traffic, and the street can become a new playground for kids.

Example: Alternatives to zoning. Fort Collins, Colo. has tossed out traditional zoning. Instead, developers bring their proposals to a planning and zoning board. There's provision for neighborhood hearings, and only disputed cases go to the city council. Developers are in effect challenged to accommodate Fort Collins' goals: developments which include a mix of residences, commercial and factory space in a square mile or so, so that more people can walk to work.

Example: Retake the strips. Too many communities are blighted by miles of used-car lots, hamburger stands and convenience stores. A visual cure is needed. Fort Collins, as well as Park City, Utah, and Scottsdale, Ariz., have learned to make commercial strips attractive. They require miniaturization of the signs -- the McDonald's and Burger Kings and Pizza Huts. Then they add landscaping along median strips and insist that owners landscape their parking lots.

Problem: All that takes regulation -- and money. How can citizens persuade Baltimore area governments to take the plunge?

These ideas need a lot more public discussion. Indeed, the lack of full public debate is said to be the reason growth management legislation had trouble in the Maryland General Assembly this year.

We'd suggest the newspapers team up with local television stations for coverage which illustrates the different growth options the Baltimore region faces. People need to see alternative types of housing and design, and how they might affect their lives. And then to debate the costs in setting rules and raising money for better public spaces.

Back in the early '70s newspapers and television stations around New York City tried a fascinating experiment. The television stations aired documentaries on housing, the environment, poverty and urban growth, each program coordinated with citizen feedback. Eighteen stations actually aired the "town meetings;" some 50 newspapers printed policy option "ballots" for citizens to fill out and mail in.

Similar experiments were later tried, on a smaller scale, in such cities as Chicago; Milwaukee; Roanoke, Va. and Hartford, Conn. It's one of the most promising ways we've ever seen to bring thousands of citizens into the decision-making process -- not as most polls do, by simply reporting their off-hand opinions, but after they've been candidly briefed on the benefits, costs and trade-offs of each policy option.

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